New findings conducted by UCSB psychology professor Dr. Brenda Major have indicated that women who are exposed to media messages encouraging weight loss and who see themselves as overweight may actually be less likely to lose weight.

Major’s study has found that the shame women feel for weighing in at what they perceive as “overweight” is damaging at a psychological level due to media stigmatization of overweight people, who may be portrayed as lazy or self-indulgent. Because of this, the type of media that is supposed to encourage weight loss could ironically be the reason behind the weight gain.

In the study, young women were used as the subjects due to their susceptibility to weight loss stigma. Half of the women were asked to read a mock article from The New York Times entitled “Lose Weight or Lose Your Job,” while the other half were asked to read “Quit Smoking or Lose Your Job.”

After reading the articles, the women were video recorded and told to describe what they had read to another person who had not read the article. They were then provided a ten-minute break in a different room to wait for the next part of the experiment. In the room was a variety of snacks. All of the participants were offered the same type and quantity of snacks and were seated in the waiting room for the same amount of time.

In the final part of the experiment, participants were asked questions regarding weight loss and how capable they felt of controlling their food intake. As Major and colleagues had predicted, women who were overweight had eaten more than the other women and said they felt less in control of themselves around food.

An unexpected finding during Major’s study discovered that women who did not see themselves as overweight, and who had read the article regarding weight loss reported, said that they felt more in control of their intake of food. Major said articles which suggest that weight loss is a matter of self-control make women feel helpless when it comes to controlling how much food they consume. She said messages regarding weight loss would most likely be more effective if they revolved around good health and exercise, rather than numbers such as BMI and weight, which can cause women battling with being overweight to feel depressed.

Second-year psychology major Megan Gibson thought overweight women may have a negative perception of their weight and eat to comfort themselves about it.

“I think that the reason the women who thought of themselves as overweight ate more after they saw the article on weight loss [was] because they felt insecure and used the food as a comfort and coping mechanism,” she said.

Second-year Spanish major Kelsey Burkman, meanwhile, was surprised that not all of the participants ate less.

“I feel that after reading an article on weight loss, people would be more aware of their food intake and eat less,” she said.


This story is a Daily Nexus online exclusive.